Movie Review: Oranges and Sunshine

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Emily Watson's performance as Margaret is buttoned-down and remote in Oranges and Sunshine. Photo / Supplied
Emily Watson's performance as Margaret is buttoned-down and remote in Oranges and Sunshine. Photo / Supplied

The raw material of this based-on-fact film is political and emotional dynamite, but the drama doesn't translate on to the screen and the result is more earnest than engaging.

It's based on the 1994 book Empty Cradles by Margaret Humphreys, a Nottingham social worker who blew wide open a programme run by the British Government which forcibly relocated British kids in state care to Australia and other Commonwealth countries (including New Zealand).

The programme, which ran under the innocuous-sounding name Home Children, was actually established in 1869, but its heyday was the two decades after World War II when about 7000 were sent to Australia, almost always without their parents' knowledge or consent. Incredibly, it continued until 1970.

It sounds like the stuff of nightmares and it got much worse when the kids arrived Downunder: having been promised lives of ease and comfort (the "oranges and sunshine" of the title), most were housed in grim institutions where they were beaten and brutalised.

To its credit, the film is not so crass as to re-enact this suffering for shock value, but it's hard to see why it had to be such a schematic and bloodless affair. Writer Rona Munro, who penned the electrifying Ladybird, Ladybird for director Jim Loach's dad Ken, never really finds the story's beating heart. She gets through the material efficiently enough, but the story staggers under the weight of all the expository dialogue.

Sensibly, Loach and Munro decided to make it Humphreys' story rather than a plodding recitation of the issues, and we are given a sharp sense of the toll it took on her and her family, though I wish her husband would lose his rag occasionally and not be such a saint.

But Watson's performance is buttoned-down and remote - in sharp contrast to the woman herself, so it cannot claim accuracy as a defence. Only Weaving, as a survivor of the brutality, whose physical tics betray a lifetime of suppressed pain, gives us some sense of the human tragedy.

Stars: 3/5
Cast: Emily Watson, Hugo Weaving, David Wenham
Director: Jim Loach
Running time: 105 mins
Rating: M (offensive language)
Verdict: Potent but schematic

- TImeOut

- NZ Herald

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